With only a few days in Berlin, we did want to hit as many of the most memorable sites as we could and the Reichstag was definitely on our list since we could do it in a day. Facing the cold weather, we persevered and headed directly to the Reichstag after walking past the Brandenburg Gate. It wasn't snowing or even windy, but it was bone chilling cold out. I was so glad that I packed lightweight liners to wear under my clothes plus my gloves and scarf.
What exactly is the Reichstag? The Reichstag is the seat of the German Bundestag or federal government. After the founding of the German Empire in 1872, there was a need for a large parliamentary building in Berlin. The building was designed by Paul Wallot and constructed between 1884 and 1894, mainly funded with wartime reparation money from France, a result of Prussia's defeat of France in 1871.
As we approached the Reichstag, we could see the entrance as there were lines leading up to the entrance of the small trailers outside. In order to enter the Reichstag, it is necessary to register in advance on their website. Our friend Ilka had advised us that it was "really cool to go up into the glass cupola," so we were excited to see what it had in store for us. Although our appointment was for 11:45 am, we arrived at 10:45 am and thought we might be able to just walk around beforehand. Did I mention that it is free to go inside? If you didn't make an appointment, they will direct you across the street where you can use the internet to make your appointment.
The front of the building bears the words, "Dem Deutschen Volke" which translates to "To the German People." This famous inscription was added long after the construction of the Reichstag in 1916 by emperor Wilhelm II. The bronze letters were cast from seized French cannons.
Do not miss the detail work all over the exterior of this building, but if you do while you are going into the building, take a minute on the way out to stop and appreciate the handiwork of the artisans who created it.
Hitler never used the Reichstag, but instead a former opera house opposite the Reichstag. Just four weeks after being sworn in as Chancellor, the Reichstag was on fire and the Nazis said this was evidence that the Communists were beginning a plot against the German government. In reality, it was later learned that the fire was started by the Nazis.
Some post-World War II information from Berlin.de:
"The Reichstag building suffered heavy damage in bombing raids during World War II, and the fight to take the building continued until the very end. In 1955, the Bundestag decided to rebuild it, although without a dome, the original of which had been demolished in 1954 because it was structurally unsound. Renovation was carried out according to plans by Paul Baumgarten and not completed until 1972. The decorative figures that had been destroyed were not restored, and the façade was simplified. Despite the restrictions on use mandated by the Four-Power Agreement, parliamentary committees and groups met in the Reichstag building as often as possible. On 4 October 1990, the first parliament representing all of Germany and consisting of members of the Bundestag and former members of the GDR’s Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) met in the plenary chamber of the Reichstag building, followed two months later by the first sessions of the freely elected, all-German Bundestag beginning on 20 December 1990."
Once you exit the trailers outside, from there you are ushered up the stairs and again into another area to wait. It's all very James Bond-like as doors open in front of you and others close behind you. You are then squeezed into an elevator with everyone in your group (hope you aren't claustrophobic!) and then the doors open after what seems like an insanely long amount of time. A desk is just outside of the elevator doors with free audio guides. These are available in ten languages: German, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Turkish, and Dutch. Stand in the line (we didn't see it and got reprimanded!), but I can tell you that having one is well worth it as all of the sights are pointed out that you might otherwise miss.
The views from inside are beyond incredible as you get a 360° view of the entire city. Your brain will be on overload as you try to take in all of the views of the city, but also the building itself, which is a sculptural wonder. As you ascend to the top, you can peer out the opening and then begin your descent back down. Visitors inside the dome never cross paths as they go up and then down on separate levels and then exit unless they stop to go in the restaurant, Käfer, near the rooftop.
Once you reach the top, you can view the structure from the outside. British architect Sir Norman Foster was given the task of renovating the building. He needed to create "…a point of operation for a newly-restored democratic government, but make it publicly accessible and adhere to historical sensitivity and sustainable factors." (From Holiday Velvet) The fact that a foreigner was chosen for the redesign of the country's national parliament suggests an openness and a desire for transparency, which Foster was able to translate literally.
One of my favorite vantage points, which doesn't translate well into a picture is the view down into the actual Parliament building. The dome floods the main hall with natural light and as such, you can view the blue chairs of the Bundestag. If you're lucky, which we weren't, you could see them in session. With a reservation and a tour guide, you can actually take a tour inside. Here is some additional information about the reopening of the building from Berlin.de.
"The new Reichstag building was officially opened on 19 April 1999. The new dome, which visitors can enter, has proven to be an especially strong attraction and has become a symbol of the parliament and government district. Eight hundred tons of steel and 3,000 square meters of glass went into building this structure, which is 23.5 meters high, while 360 mirrors provide daylight to the newly designed plenary chamber. The parliament took up its work in Berlin at the end of the summer recess in 1999."
Back down at the main level, there are photographs with historical information in German and English that you can view prior to leaving. Once you are ready to leave, queue up again and when there are enough people in line, they will pile everyone back up again inside the elevator to the main floor.
If you're a history buff, this is a must-visit stop on your trip to Berlin.